Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong

Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong
(Robert R. Reilly, February 9, 2016)

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About the speaker

Robert R. Reilly spoke to the Military History Legion at The University Club on February 9. Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006).

He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade.

Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad. In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as both national director and then president.

He was on active duty as an armored cavalry officer for two years, and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the “war of ideas”, and classical music.

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:

The Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)

Information Operations: Successes and Failures (September 6, 2013)

Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)

The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)



Bob Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. He has written for The Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post — we will not hold that against you — The Reader’s Digest, National Review, and many other publications. He was former director of the Voice of America. He has taught at the National Defense University, served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he also participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I ask you to welcome Bob Reilly.

Robert Reilly:

Jeff, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be with you this evening. You may have seen the lecture topic was switched. Jeff actually came to the Westminster Institute for a talk on the subject. In our email exchanges that topic stayed with the title. My talk title was in the text message, so do you know what I am talking about tonight? If you do, tell me. I think you know, it is ‘Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.’ But I will touch upon the subject of jihad, and you may notice that this is such a disgusting subject that I will have an adult beverage with me up here while we are discussing it. It is also kind of body language to let you know that I am not a Muslim.

Now, you may have noticed in the news that when the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran went through Italy and France, at the state dinners which he attended, no wine was served. I have been to France and Italy many times. I have never seen a meal without wine and that was done so President Rouhani’s Islamic faith would not be offended by the presence of alcoholic beverages, which brought to mind a memory of Winston Churchill when he was Prime Minister and King Saud was visiting him at 10 Downing Street.

King Saud’s emissary arrived at 10 Downing Street to go over the requirements for the dinner with Churchill and he said to the Prime Minister, for religious reasons no alcoholic beverages will be served in His Majesty’s presence, to which Churchill responded, “Champagne will be served before dinner, Bordeaux will be served with dinner, and cognac will be served after dinner also for religious reasons.” And so it was.

So now, I would better move on and address our subject of, “Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.” So, I think we need to pull back and consider a little history on the relationship between the United States and the Middle East and first of all, we will notice that there was not much of one if one at all for the major part of the history of the United States. Why? Because the United States did not have any vital, strategic interests there.

The feeling was apparently mutual as no Middle Eastern country opened an embassy in Washington until the Ottomans in 1873. It was not until 1909 that the U.S. State Department created its Near Eastern Affairs division. In 1913, Assistant Secretary of State Francis Huntington Wilson announced, “It’s no place to waste ammunition.” Well, apparently some things change.

Now, the United States as is obvious from our origin, has consistently been an anti-colonial power and this has given us a certain perspective on the world. So, when we began noticing the Middle East and considering our relationship to it, the first thing we noticed was it was the object of imperial powers and at the time of our first serious association with it, it was subject to Ottoman imperialism.

And so the notion arose, should only the Arab peoples be given their freedom? If the shackles of Ottoman imperialism could be lifted from them, the Arabs would naturally assume the blessings of liberty and self-government. Because our perspective was if you do not have the exercise of these rights, it is because someone has taken it from you.

The Ottomans insisted on entering World War I. As you know, Churchill had promised them if they stayed out of it, the British Empire would guarantee the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Foolishly, they entered it. The empire collapsed at the end of the war and what took the place of Ottoman imperialism was British and French imperialism.

So the story with the United States changed a little bit. If only the Arab peoples could be free from Western, French, and British imperialism, the Arab peoples would assume upon themselves the blessings of liberty and self-government. And the United States was known as an anti-imperial power. At the conclusion of the war, we pressured both the French and the British to abandon their colonial possessions. And then in 1956 in the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower cemented this reputation by opposing the Israelis, the French, and the British when they repossessed the Suez Canal after Nasser had expropriated it from them, and Eisenhower told them to get out.

So understandably, we were popular. The United States was admired, and so we thought now that the British and French imperial powers have withdrawn, the Arab peoples will take upon themselves self-government with the blessings of liberty. The British and the French, exhausted from the war and their imperial endeavors, eventually withdrew. And the United States because of the strategic interest it had there, principally, obviously, oil, had to fill in their shoes and we made an amazing discovery: that the problems in the Middle East or a good deal of them were not a product of Ottoman imperialism or Western imperialism, they were indigenous to the region. Only now they were our problems.

The United States formed its foreign policy in respect to the Middle East from Truman on because of the vital strategic asset of oil there, that we would not allow any antagonistic, hegemonic power to gain control of those supplies. This policy was reiterated. This was a bipartisan policy. It was reiterated by every president. You may recall Jimmy Carter, hardly known as a hardcore president on foreign policy, repeating this.

After the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and worries persisted that this might be a lurch toward the Middle Eastern oil resources through this long tunnel into Iran. In fact, he made the announcement, repeating this policy, saying that if any hostile power attempted to become the hegemon in the Middle East, that would be a casus belli for the United States, consistently articulated.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart, but this policy persisted in a slightly reformulated fashion. Since we were no longer worried about an antagonistic, hegemonic power from outside the Middle East, we then concentrated on any local hegemon whose ambitions would imperil the strategic interests of the United States. And so it was that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, took it over, made several military feints into Saudi Arabia, the President George Bush Sr. created the coalition to throw Saddam out.

This was consistent with U.S. foreign policy since the end of the war. Now, I was a supporter of that policy at the time as I was in the subsequent war Operation Iraqi Freedom. As Jeff told you, I participated in a minor way in that. Now, the problem with the First Gulf War is that President Bush did not finish it. He thought that the defeat of the Iraqi Armed Forces was sufficient to generate internal forces within Iraq that would have overthrown Saddam Hussein, meaning he did not have a sufficient understanding of the Ba’ath Party apparatus or the Mukhabarat or military intelligence in Iraq. That was not going to happen.

I was doing a weekly television radio show at the Voice of America World Net TV on an anniversary of that war, and I had in the studio Richard Haass, who is now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He had been the principal National Security Council (NSC) advisor during the First Gulf War. We were off camera and off mic and I said to him, “Why didn’t you call the defeated generals to the tent?” Because the rap on this is, well, we would have had to go to Baghdad. No, we would not have [had to go to Baghdad]. Why did you not call the defeated generals to the tent and simply say, “Gentlemen, you have 48 hours to reconstitute your regime without Saddam Hussein, and after 48 hours if you have not done that, we are not coming for Saddam, we are coming for you, so let’s all reset our watches and good luck to you.”

So I said to Mr. Haass, why didn’t you do that? And his answer was startling. He said the generals who could have done that would not have come to the tent. The generals of a defeated army will not come to the tent? That means you have not defeated the army, and so it was the United States consciously allowed the Republican Guard to escape its grasp before imposing terms upon it, thus necessitating another war more than a decade later. In the tremendous criticism that this Iraq policy has come under, particularly the fiasco that Operation Iraqi Freedom eventually became, I always say, yes, I know this turns out to have been a terrible mistake, but how would you have ended the war?

It is usually what, what do you mean? The war was still going on. If you remember the northern no-fly zone, the southern no-fly zone, if you remember the American and allied aircraft were being fired upon by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns weekly. Tell me how you would have ended that war, how would you have sustained the effort, the no-fly zones and the humanitarian effort. When I was in Baghdad in the Spring of 2003, I was living in Saddam’s Republican palace. I cannot tell you how bizarre an experience that was, but on the marble entrance was an Arabic inscription, which I asked my Kurdish friend to read, and it said, “This palace was rebuilt in honor of Saddam Hussein’s victory over the United States in 1991.”

You laugh, but it was [a victory]. More than a decade later he was still there, and he was still there in defiance of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, so if you win a war and you do not enforce the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, you have not won the war, and everyone throughout the Middle East, believe me, could read that inscription in the Republican palace, so I think it behooved President George W. Bush to finally bring him into compliance and end that war, but not the way we did, that involved some major misunderstandings.

Here is one of them. A former Israeli intelligence agent said to me before Operation Iraqi Freedom, I hope you understand that no one there wishes you well. No one there wishes you well. What did he mean by that? He meant that none of the countries, none of the Arab countries in the Middle East wished us success. It was not in their interest that we succeed in the terms in which we define success, so if you are going, go knowing that no one there wishes you well because the terms in which you define success, which is a free, constitutional, rule of law, market economy in Iraq, was inimical to the interest of the Ba’athist regime in Syria because it would delegitimize it, and it was certainly against the interests of Iran for reasons we never seem to articulate or completely understand.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shia population in Iraq was severely repressed. Najaf and Karbala, those two cities together are the Rome of Shia Islam, [and] because of the terrible suppression by Saddam the temporary headquarters, the sort of Avignon papacy of the Shia world, was Qom in Iran, so the senior Ayatollahs were in Qom or London. Now, the promise that the second Iraq War held out after liberating Iraq was that the theological center of gravity would move from Qom back to Najaf and Karbala, where, indeed, Ayatollah Sistani went and where Ayatollah [Abdul-Majid] Al Khoei tried to return, and he was murdered there in the Spring of 2003. When that happened, my heart sank.

Ayatollah [Abdul-Majid] Al Khoei and Sistani represented the traditional, Shia theological orthodoxy of Quietest Shia Islam, where you endure whatever you have to in the current political order because what we are really waiting for is the return of the Mahdi, and so it does not have an activist revolutionary program.

Now, the Iranians understood this, and therefore they wanted to go into Iraq and co-opt the theological center of gravity [from] moving back there. That was the greatest threat to their legitimacy because traditional Shi’ism does not include the Velâyat-e Faqih doctrine of the rule of the jurisprudence in Iran, that Ayatollah Khomeini instigated, so this was a question of theological legitimacy, which was life and death for Iran and also for the Ba’ath regime in Syria for Assad.

So the first thing we should have been prepared for in invading that country was in preventing those powers from interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq, and I can tell you that we failed miserably. There was massive internal interference from both Syria and Iran. You know, first they tested. As we were going or preparing to go into Iraq, the Iranians were very worried because we were already in Afghanistan and they knew we were not going to be able to take out Saddam, so we had Iran flanked, so the Iranians were all cooperation, contacting the United States, saying in your military operations should any of your pilots be shot down and come into Iranian airspace, we want to tell you, we will guarantee their safety, return them safely to you.

This Iran was afraid, but when they began probing in Iraq and met with no resistance, their fear disappeared, and when Assad started penetrating from the west, he found the same thing. When they set up the ratlines to send in great numbers of jihadists to attack U.S. troops and the Iraqi government, massive internal interference. In the fledgling media operation of which I was a part, I can tell you before we had anything on the air, Iran had two 24/7 TV stations in Arabic operating. They had transmitters inside Iraq.

General Sanchez as you know was one of the ground commanders in Iraq, and the day after he retired, I had a chance to ask him a question, and I said General Sanchez, knowing that success as we defined it was inimical to the interests of Iran and Syria, why were we not prepared to stop the massive interference from both of those countries in the internal affairs of Iraq? Two-word answer from General Sanchez: significant neglect, significant neglect.

Anyone who understood the Middle East, like my Israeli friend, would know that no one wished us well. Anyone who understood what was at stake for Syria and Iran would know what they would attempt to do, and yet we failed to anticipate that and take any action to it. And of course, as you know, we dissolved the Iraqi army instead of immediately reconstituting it and sending it to guard the borders or guard the installations.

Well, that is all. I have so many mistakes we made in the Middle East. I have to keep going along here. Now, the next mistake of significant magnitude was our misunderstanding of the Arab Spring. Here, again, finally, perhaps the American vision was coming true, that the dead hand of the local despots was being removed by the people themselves, and what would replace it? Self-government, lessons of Liberty, as this is what these people wished or – and of course, when one’s heart went out to the people involved in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, hoping that finally some kind of decent rule of law, constitutional government could come out of this.

That was a completely unrealistic expectation. There were only three possible beneficiaries of the outcome of [the] Arab Spring as they were the only organized entities in the Arab world which could take advantage of the mayhem that was developing. Number one, the military, Mukhabarat, king or quasi king, that apparatus, the Islamist apparatus and the Muslim Brotherhood as it had monopolized the Islamic education system and monopolized the mosques. They had been preparing for this moment for 80 years. They were organized, highly disciplined. They were in a position to benefit from it, and the only other institution that would [benefit] would be the tribes, so it would be one of those three.

Well, of course, one of those three had already been running things, so if there was an overthrow of [a government], one of the other three would take over from it, and it would depend on what part of the Middle East we are talking about because in some areas of it the tribes are strong, like Somalia or Libya, in some places the tribes are not so strong, and it is other, you know, affiliations through the ruler or the Islamists. And so it was the hopes of the Arab Spring were dashed and we saw that in the largest Arab country, an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood takeover, the nightmare for the United States.

The Muslim Brotherhood began in 1928, four years after the dissolution of the last Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood began precisely with the mission of restoring the Caliphate. That has been its purpose since its beginning. Now, almost every Islamist and terrorist group in the Sunni world is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, including Al Qaeda, including al-Nusra. They are all offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. They in some way or another share in the ideology of the Brotherhood, perhaps in a more radical way or with different tactical understanding of the situation.

Yet what should the United States do under President Obama but celebrate, but welcome the Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian presidency under Mohammed Morsi. It had been the policy of the Obama administration from the beginning to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood. When Obama made his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, he arranged for Muslim Brotherhood figures to be in the first row. As a consequence of which, of course, President Mubarak did not go, and members, senior members of his administration, did not go. That was the Obama signal that the Muslim Brotherhood is fine with the United States.

Now, a year afterwards what appears to have been the largest demonstrations in human history in Egypt overthrew President Morsi, who had assumed powers beyond the dreams of the Pharaohs. He had done exactly what anyone who understood the Muslim Brotherhood would do – which is to create an authoritarian, leading to a totalitarian, regime. And thank heavens, the Egyptian military stepped in at the behest of these enormous civilian demonstrations to put an end to that Morsi Presidency. As a consequence of which, of course, the Obama administration suspended military relationships and aid to Egypt because al Sisi had just saved America’s strategic interests in the Middle East but has to be punished for that.

This attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, could be manifest in Obama’s visit to the local mosque in Baltimore the other week. In all of his talks about Islam he has never gone to Muslims who reject the Muslim Brotherhood, who in fact are the intellectual reform wing of Islam. It is small, but it is there, and there are any number of people who do not want to be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, who, unfortunately, more or less are because of the focus of this administration.

Now, what I should do is go over some fundamental theological and philosophical issues that are embedded in the Middle East to an extent that is beyond the comprehension of most Americans because they have not acquainted themselves with this theology. There was a huge battle in the Muslim world in the ninth century over the status of reason. The caliphate at that point was located in Baghdad. It was absorbing the impact of Greek philosophy and Hellenic thinking. It had set up the House of Wisdom, it had set up an enormous translation effort to have these Greek texts translated. First, they were in Syriac and then into Arabic. The first Arab Muslim philosopher, al Kindi, appeared.

This was the efflorescence. This was – when people talked about the Golden Age of Islam, it is Baghdad [in the] first half of the ninth century, a tremendously promising period. Now, the nature of the theological struggle that took place at that time on the status of reason was whether God himself was reason or whether he was pure will and power, and the Mu’tazilite side, sponsored by the Caliph, said God is reason, he has given us our reason to understand the rational order of his creation through which to come to know him, and through which to come to know the difference between right and wrong, for he has given us freewill so that we may choose that right, and we can understand what he wants us to do through our reason simply by examining his creation, not just Muslims, anyone, all men can do this.

In addition, of course, we find that God has spoken to us, He has given us His revelation, and we are to understand that revelation in terms of reason. If there is anything unreasonable in it, we are not understanding it correctly because it must be brought into a court of reason. Primacy of reason held place in Islam at that time. The opposition rose, the Ash’arites, to say God is not reason, he is pure will and power. He can do anything. He is not bound by anything. There is no natural law, everything [that] happens is the direct result of God’s will. No one has any power but God, and all things are determined by Him.

Oops, what happened there?

Audience member:

God’s will.

Robert R. Reilly:

Bill got it straight. The rest of you have committed the sin of shirk, which is blasphemy in Islam. It was God’s will that made the pen fall, not gravity. Otherwise, you would be associating something with God by saying there is some rule outside of Him that orders or determines things, so it is God [that] is the first and only cause, there are no subsidiary laws, there is no causality, there is no cause and effect in the world. Fire does not burn cotton, God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall, God does.

As you might imagine, the embrace of this extraordinary metaphysics and theology brought that efflorescence of culture under the Mu’tazilite Caliphs to a close or at least it began dying out, and if you are wondering why today in the Arab world it comes in next to last except for sub-Saharan Africa and this is according to the UN Human Development reports written all by Arabs, next-to-last in every category of human development; education, healthcare, GDP, number of patents.

South Korea produces more patents in a year than the entire Arab Muslim world. Spain in a single year – I choose Spain because my wife is Spanish, sitting patiently in the back of the room – translates more books in a year than the Arab Muslim world has done in the last thousand years, so you see what was a once great civilization fall into this state of dysfunction. And the thesis of the book that Jeff was kind enough to have mentioned, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, is the story of how a deformed theology led to a dysfunctional culture, and that is what we are faced with in the Middle East today.

I want to give you a little sample of how this plays out. The word mind in Arabic is etymologically derived from the name of the process of time to gather cattle legs so that they cannot move or stand, so it is a binding thing, it prevents you, it does not allow you. Now, the greatest theologian of the Ash’arite movement on the primacy of power and the denigration of reason had this to say. It is, by the way, Muhammad al-Ghazali, “The mind once it testifies to the truthfulness of the Prophet must cease to act.” The mind once it testifies to the truth of the Prophet must cease to act.

Now, King Hussein of Jordan in the last interview he gave before he died, to an American journalist he was asked this, “Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated from the ninth century when Islam missed the chance to become a religion of reason and moderation by crushing the Mu’tazilite movement?” King Hussein answers, “That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to change that now.” Well, I actually work with Muslims who are trying to change that now, and they are exactly the Muslims to which this administration does not turn to in either acknowledgment or support, and they are not alone in doing that.

I have to say, I served in the Bush administration. They did not do it either. Not through any antagonism to them but just simply through ignorance. They did not have any idea who they were. I want to give you another sample. The antagonism to reason seeps in, so you understand its depth. My friend, Dr. Tawfik Hamid, was a member of the most violent terrorist organization in Egypt, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. The ones who attacked the Western tourists at Luxor, who slaughtered those people, that is Tawfik’s group, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya.

Now, he was recruited in medical school, and his recruiter and handler was named Muqtar Muqtar. Tawfik relates this experience with Muqtar, “On the way to the mosque, Moqtar emphasized the central importance in Islam of a concept of al fikr kufr,” the idea that the very act of thinking, fikr, makes one become an infidel, kufr. The very act of thinking makes you an infidel. He told me, ‘Your brain is just like a donkey that can get you only to the palace door of the king, Allah. To enter the palace once you have reached the door, you should leave the donkey, your inferior mind, outside.’ By this parable, Muqtar meant that a truly dedicated Muslim no longer thinks but automatically obeys the teachings of Islam.”

So, if you go to Saudi websites and so forth, you will read ‘abandon reason and submit to the text,’ and they have. And look what they have.

Now, I want to quickly go a little bit – since jihad was in the title of this talk – [into] something about the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood teachings as presented in the ideology put forth by Sayyid Qutb. Sayyid Qutb is perhaps the most prominent Islamist ideologue, hanged by Nasser, so he died some years ago, but if you examine the jihadi literature of a twentieth century thinker, it is Qutb that will be quoted the most frequently.

Now, here is what is wrong with Islamism, and it is the same thing that is wrong with any totalitarian ideology. Let us take a brief look at the worldview of monotheism as expressed in Judaism and Christianity and Islam. It goes something like this. Here we have the universe, of which we are inside, and transcending the universe is God. He created the universe from nothing. He holds into existence, and he has spoken to his creatures in it. And in this revelation, this transcendent God tells us how to behave, what to do and what not to do. And if we obey, if we do what He tells us to do and avoid what He tells us not to do, after we die, we will appear before the seat of judgement, and either go to paradise or down into Gehenna, to Hell, both of which take place outside of time, outside of history, in this transcendent, ultimate judgement by a just God.

Does that fit the general picture of the monotheistic God? I think so.

Now, this is what is transformed by Qutb and the other Islamists that will help us see it as a totalitarian enterprise. I am quoting from Qutb here, “Islam chose to unite Earth and Heaven in a single system.” So now we do not have the utterly transcendent God and this imminent Earth. It is a single system. “This means,” I am quoting from him, “that the patent purpose of establishing God’s law on earth is not merely an action for the sake of the next world, for this world and the next world are but two complementary stages. Harmonizing with the divine law does not mean that happiness is postponed to the next life, rather it makes it real and attainable in the first of the two stages. In other words, transcendent ends will be achieved by earthly means. As Qutb says, “to reestablish the kingdom of God upon earth or to create a new world.” Elsewhere he says, “Universal adoption of the divine law would automatically mean man’s complete emancipation from all forms of enslavement.” What does that sound like, emancipation from all forms of enslavement? It is Marxism.

So, he is saying that the transcendent and the earthly, the distinction between them, has been eliminated and we can do here what we thought only God could do there, so we need not wait for the final justice before his seat of judgment, we can do that here. Guess what that requires, however. It requires two things, omniscience and omnipotence. The omniscience will be in the totalitarian state Mukhabarat, and the omnipotence will be in the all-powerful state or caliphate, which is now justified by having erased the distinction between the transcendent and the terrestrial. This makes Islamism an ideology exactly like Nazism and communism, although they were not religious, they were quasi-religious. They were substitute religions.

This is turning a religion into an ideology, and so it is I must tell you that this idea that these people are just some kind of ruffians or criminals displays the determined misunderstanding or refusal to understand exactly what they are. They are millenarian ideologues, and in the case of the current Caliphate, the Islamic State, [they are] apocalyptic millenarians who are going to precipitate and bring the end of history and thus the ultimate triumph of Islam in guess where. Dabiq in Syria.

Their monthly magazine is called Dabiq. It is the town in northern Syria that they occupy, and its significance comes from Islamic apocalyptic literature in the hadith, which foretells Dabiq as being the final battle between the Romans – you know who they are? You – the Romans and the Muslims, and of course, the Romans and the Jews, fighting together in which this will precipitate the arrival of Dajjal. Dajjal is the great deceiver, the kind of Antichrist in Islam. And at that point, Christ returns. Christ, as you know, Jesus Christ is a significant figure in the Qur’an. And in the hadith literature, it shows Jesus comes back to defeat the Dajjal, and to break all the crosses, and kill all the pigs. I am not making that up, that is in the hadith.

So that this idea that you keep hearing from Western leaders and from Obama that that these people have no ideas, they are just thugs, they are a criminal organization, this is for law enforcement and not [something more], that is not what they are. If anyone had described the Nazi Party this way or the Communist Party this way, come to think of it, Al, they actually did. They so misunderstood the nature of the Soviet Union that some people did mistake it, and so we are misunderstanding these people in this way.

Now, there is another very serious problem in trying to defeat these people. They are responding to a yearning in the Muslim population in general to the humiliation in which they have been living for hundreds of years. Islam is the religion of power and success, and yet Muslims have no success and very little power. And unlike the 19th century, ever since the revolution in communications, satellite television has pushed us in their face on a daily basis, that that inferiority can be seen, in addition to which they are being infected by Western secular values and pornography and the rest of the story. So when someone else, such as Al Baghdadi, the new caliph, promises a kind of redemption from this position of humiliation, and the restoration of Islamic pride and power, this reverberates. This calls [to] Muslims. As you know, people from sixty countries have gone into the Islamic State to fight on their behalf, so the potential danger from this and its apocalyptic dimensions is huge.

Now, why does Islam not clean up its own backyard on this one? And here we have a very big problem, and the problem is that al Baghdadi is not making anything up. Osama bin Laden was not making anything up. They pull almost exclusively from Islamic sources, so it is very hard to delegitimize them Islamically. In fact, the head of Al Azhar has not done it.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that Obama did it at the Baltimore mosque. He said that the Islamic State [militants] are apostates. Now, that really impresses Muslims because they know Obama is a mullah or an Ayatollah or a Qadi. And you wonder what could he be thinking of? What would he be thinking of that anyone would listen to him or that he has the authority of saying who is a real Muslim and who is not? That is for Muslims to do, not for him. He is not confusing any Muslims regarding this. He is only confusing us. And of course, he is confusing our strategy because it shows does not understand some essential things.

I taught for a year at National Defense University in the Counterterrorism Fellows Program, and a third of my students were Muslim officers from around the Middle East and South Asia. And the smartest one I had was the most pious Muslim in my class, [a] very wonderful student. And he said to me one day [that] bin Laden is right, 95 percent of what he says is Islam, and you cannot say that is not Islam. He said 95 percent right, so I said, Colonel, okay, where does he get the other five percent? Let us find that out and see if it does not create an opportunity for us.

Now, one of the problems, however, in delegitimizing them is this. Let us review this short statement from a wonderful Egyptian scholar, since deceased, Nasser Hamidah, who was a Muslim intellectual reformer, which is why he had to flee the country and live in The Netherlands. But he said this, “If we followed the rules of interpretation developed from the classical science of Qur’anic interpretation, it is not possible to condemn terrorism in religious terms. It remains completely true to the classical rules in its evolution of sanctity for its own justification. This is where the secret of its theological strength lies.” Did you get the significance of that statement? That is the problem. That does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists or attracted to Qutb’s ideology. The problem is that there is a kind of continuity from the most liberal Muslim all the way over to the most radical violent Muslim. And there are no breakwaters in there where you can say, well, you are the Muslim, you are not, you are not because it is kind of seamless and it goes across the entire spectrum.

This leads to a kind of desperation, and none was expressed better than by President Al-Sisi in Egypt, and I will close by reading you his passionate plea to the mullahs at Al Azhar, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Muslim world, Al Azhar, so here is Al Sisi talking to them, and he says, “It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world. It has reached the point that this ideology is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion Muslims would kill the world’s population of 7 billion so that they could live on their own? This is inconceivable. I say these things here at Al-Azhar before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgement Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked in this ideology. You must emerge from it and look from outside in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again. We need to revolutionize our religion. Honorable Imam,” the grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, “you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition.”

[That was] President Al-Sisi of Egypt. Have you heard any Western leader [comment on this?] Have you heard President Obama echo this statement [or] point to the fact that the leader of the largest Arab country in the world has made such a statement, spoken to the veracity of this statement and analysis, or rather gone to visit a Muslim Brotherhood mosque and tell them that everything is fine? This is how deep this problem runs, this is how deep these misunderstandings are, and they are going to cause tremendous trouble.

I want to close with one other thing about Iran and this agreement. Remember the consistent foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East was not to allow a hegemonic power, antithetical to our interests that would have control over those oil resources. And what have we done now in our agreement with Iran? Invited the rise of such a hegemonic power, antithetical to our interests.

Now, toward the end of World War II, President Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins made a strategic blunder of catastrophic proportions. They decided that the post-war order would rest upon the good intentions of Uncle Joe Stalin. And Harry Hopkins said everything we are arranging here, all our hopes, of course they are only good so long as Uncle Joe is okay. In other words, so long as he does not die, then our dreams can come true here. [It was] a strategic miscalculation of terrific portions, but at least, at least, Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins had the excuse that the Soviet Union was our wartime ally, so you think, well, a misperception could arise from that association and having fought Nazi Germany together.

President Obama has no such excuse for the strategic blunder of similar magnitude that he is making toward Iran today. It is simply staggering. Into the vacuum that he helped create, he is inviting a power inimical to our strategic interests to become the hegemon, which, of course, has alarmed all our former Sunni allies in the area. And we get upset if they are providing support to the Islamic State when the Islamic State is the only Sunni group fighting the Shia? Did you shoot yourself in the head simultaneously both ways because that is basically what we are approaching here.

So, I hope today I have lightly touched upon the problem of deciphering the Middle East and why we so often get it wrong, and I hope we have time for some questions, Jeff. Thank you very much.


Audience member:

Thank you so much for your talk. My name is Dr. Laura Cord, and I specialize in terrorist radicalization, recruitment, and deradicalization. Now, those are on a spectrum very far apart, but what unites them is ideology. You spoke quite a bit to the issue of stakeholders. In other countries when they have their counterterrorism programs, their key stakeholders are trained to receive money and protection, and they routinely surveil these people. They go into prisons, they go into varying places such as mosques. In the United States, you suggested several stakeholders [that] would have more sway than several politicos that you mentioned. Do you see in the United States a good counter-narrative program that would support such stakeholders and protect them [as] other countries have done?

Robert R. Reilly:

No, I do not see us [doing that]. The field in which I work most often and actively is public diplomacy, and that effort has been so damaged and misconceived [that] I would think it would be better for we to simply stop everything we are doing because it is causing more damage. It is inciting problems. But in dealing with this larger issue of recruitment and how it is you see people in Western societies where supposedly all their dreams come true, and who are living rather well, why they would go to Syria or Iraq or why they would strap bombs on themselves. And I do not think the answer is quite so mysterious as to why they do this. They do it to gain identity, purpose, and meaning. In Europe, with which I am very familiar and have spent considerable time, there is a vacuum.

Now, we through our foreign policy have created very dangerous vacuums in the Middle East, which is why we are facing some of the problems we have, but there is a spiritual vacuum that is even more dangerous. And there is also a theological safe haven that is far more dangerous than a physical safe haven, which we have given to the Islamists, which President Obama has generously afforded them. But he is not the only one, this is a bipartisan problem. And once you approach this problem at the level of which it exists, which is the provision of identity, meaning, and purpose – you know the rapper who went over, he is the one who executed James Foley, had a song, a rap [song] in Great Britain, [asking] who is going to give me meaning?

Well, they are. Is meaning on offer from anywhere else in Great Britain today? If you know it well, you know that it is not. And that is part of the problem, the spiritual problem moment and no one is going to offer any kind of counter narrative that is going to have any effect that is not dealing with things at the spiritual level.

Audience member:

I just did a project for school where I am hypothetically trying to attack the issue. In the Twin Cities they have a big Somali population, and I was trying to go after young teens with exactly what you just said is the appropriate [unintelligible] that makes me feel good, but my question is more looking for a comment from you. A lot of times I have heard Muslims say that they do not understand why terrorists say that they are doing what they are doing because what they are reading in the Qur’an for Allah [does not support it. For example], I just read the book I am Malala, and she says in there that they say they are standing for this, but none of that is in the Qur’an. So, I am just curious why she says if you can read the old Arabic it is in, which a lot of them cannot, none of it is stated in there. So, I am just curious why they say that, like is this rhetoric like that?

Robert R. Reilly:

Yes, of course it is. It is in the Qur’an, and it is in the hadith, but there are peaceful sections of the Qur’an. As I say, Islam is a religion of peace except when it is not. As one Muslim said – he got in a lot of trouble in Egypt for saying this, he said the Qur’an is like a shopping cart, you just go in there and get whatever you want, and that is what you can get out of it.

I will tell you what embarked me upon an intense ten-year study of Islam. [In] Osama bin Laden’s first video after 9/11, he quoted his spiritual mentor, the Palestinian thinker Abdullah Azzam. And the quote from Abdullah Azzam is, “terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion. I thought, well, I think I better study Muslim theology, and that is what I did. The whole point of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture on the status of reason was to say [that] if God is not reason, then behaving unreasonably is not wrong because reason is no longer a standard of right and wrong. And if you remove reason or logos from your conception of God’s essence, then there is no barrier to this terrorism. There is no point at which you could say, well, this is wrong because God is reason, and behaving unreasonably is wrong, and therefore forced conversion to your religion is wrong because that is behaving unreasonably.

You see the slate has been wiped clean here with the defeat of the idea that God is reason, which was one of the central teachings of the Mu’tazilite theology that was forcibly suppressed in the ninth century with the theology of God is pure will and power, which replaced it. And that is why there is nowhere in there where you can say stop. I mean most people, most Muslims, are not disposed to behave that violently, but there is nowhere you can say, well, it is wrong for you to go over there, where they do. I mean the hadith and the Qur’an have ample justification for this behavior, unfortunately.

One last thing I want to say to you is that these Islamists are not doing something differently. There is a tradition of Islamic jurisprudence which limits what Muslims can do in warfare that was developed in the Middle Ages and so forth. What the Islamists have said is no, no, we are going back to the Qur’an and the hadith, and we are going to wipe out centuries of Islamic jurisprudence, which would otherwise prevent us from doing what we wish to [do]. They are the Islamic reformists, so [to] people who say, well, what Islam needs is a Reformation, I say, well, be careful what you wish for because that is the Islamic Reformation. It has already taken place. That is the Islamic Reformation.

Audience member:

Bob, you talked about the Islamic Reformation. I mentioned this at the Naval War College, that Wahhabism was the reformation. But as a sidebar, Calvinism did a lot to destroy European art. But moving forward a bit or actually going back to the war business, the First Desert War should be looked at as 18th century balance of power war. We checked the Iraqis so they could check the Iranians.

The second one ignored every guideline of how to run a war, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc. What I encountered out there was the profound ignorance and hostility of our own people to the historical situation, and when some of us at Army’s Civil Affairs suggested that the Hashemites be restored to Iraq because there was a great sentiment for it, the hostility I ran into was incredible. Only the ignorance of the place superseded it, so we ended up with this absolute mess out there, a lot of which goes right back to Bremer, disbanding the Iraqi Army, which had given up under promises that they would reorganize things, and everything would run right along.

Robert R. Reilly:

That we will take care of you. Do not fight us and we will take care of you.

Audience member:

The Imams said – my source is Michael Azadi, who is an advisor to the Special Operations School. He teaches up at Fordham. The Imams had said do not fight the Americans. Do not resist them because if they had resisted, it would have been a bloody mess.

Robert R. Reilly:

I cannot agree with you more. I remember when someone I knew was going over to Iraq as a civilian contractor to work in the war of ideas side of things. He said do you have any books to recommend? And I said how about a history of Iraq? He said hey, that is a great idea. No, exactly, so yeah.

Audience member:

When I told the Iraqis that I had studied under Sidney Fisher in Ohio State, [their response was], oh, you know Fisher? Come, we must talk. Because his book was throughout the East. They know more about it than our own people.

Audience member:

I just wonder if you can make some comment on the similarity between this idea of an eternal struggle of Marxism, that there was no rest, everything is political, everything is a struggle, and the idea of the Ghazi Warrior, the continual struggle between Islam and the infidels.

Robert R. Reilly:

That is exactly the same in Marxism and in Islamism, that the struggle is eternal. Well, not exactly eternal because history comes to an end as it will supposedly near Dabiq when Islam will be triumphant, but until then, it is a state of constant hostility and hatred. And as Sayyid Qutb makes clear, I have quoted extensively from him in my book, that hatred is the essence and that one must never stop hating. This reminded me so much of Lenin, who said, and I am quoting, “Hatred is the basis of communism.” And so hatred is the basis of this too.

Audience member:

Having been a participant from 1991 and four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, our friends, the Saudis and the Iranians, the Syrians and just about everybody else but the Iraqis, told us to stop at the border and leave him alone. Georgia H.W. Bush heeded his friends (and they were his friends) and stopped at the border. Leave it alone. Keep the bulwarks. Let them solve it incrementally themselves. In 2003, the son decided that he knew better. I am not going to argue about this. Having been a participant, the Iraqi divisions among their society are irreconcilable from a little power who is only 250 years old and knows nothing. I am going to stop right there.

However, the present conflicts are reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, a true believer… before it was Marxism. Now it is Islamism. It will exhaust itself because 99.9 percent of the Islamic people, who I do not pretend to speak for, by the way, between my acquaintances and having dealt with the Afghan and Iraqi forces and all of that, and I can claim particularly Afghans are many of my friends. I signed a lot of their papers to get them their visas. They do not believe it. They do not believe in the caliphate. They do not believe in this dominance of Allah over everybody. Even my very conservative friends who are very interested in Israel, very sympathetic to the Middle East and all of the humiliations of the last 200 years. The Chinese have the same thing, by the way. It will exhaust itself. You have young people who are believing in the kingdom of heaven on earth, which is where Daesh comes from. It will exhaust itself. It is not an existential threat. It is an annoyance.

It took us 15 years to kill 5,000 American soldiers, my brother, but those soldiers are pocket change compared to what they want to do. Eventually, their own people will turn. They have already turned on them. Southern Afghanistan sells opium to anybody. There is nothing but corruption everywhere, so much for Islamic Puritanism. Islamism does not exist anywhere. It is just these creatures and the occasional young people who follow them, and realize this is someone disjointed. It is simply another irritant in the process of civilization. Within 20 years, this whole thing will have disappeared just like socialism did. It will take this generation, getting themselves killed, and many of them end up coming back from Syria and Iraq totally disillusioned from what they have seen. This is our fault for not letting them solve their own problem. I could preach forever on this.

Robert R. Reilly:

No, no. There is a lot of wisdom in what you have said. You are absolutely right that it will exhaust itself because it has embraced aversion of unreality in order and reality is always [critical]. Yet people are resistant to unreality. Reality is resistant to unreality so it will exhaust itself. The question is how much damage will it do in the interim? And you know the analogy that Muslims often use to the current situations when they are trying to come up with bad names for either al-Qaeda or Daesh is the Khwarijites, and the Khwarijites were a 7th century [group]. They were the first Takfiri branch of Islam, puritanical branch of Islam. And I have read contemporaneous accounts of how the Kharijites behaved and it is hair-raising material.

And the only thing you would have to change to apply it today is instead of the Scimitar, it is an explosive belt or grenade. It is just the weapons have changed, but the Kharijites would go into a Muslim village and just [say] let’s slaughter everyone because they were not following the pure Islam as they conceived of it. And this, of course, appalled more Orthodox Muslims, but it took them more than a century to take care of the Kharijites, so it is not a little problem.

Now, there is one other thing I would like for you to consider. Appreciating the great wisdom that you have gained from your extensive experience, I respect what you said very, very deeply and agree with just about all of it. Here is the problem. The approach to Al Qaeda was, of course, we kill the leadership, and you know they will fade away and everything will be restored to normal. Now that line has changed, or it is Al Nusra, or now it is Islamic State, and if we wipe them out, then everything will go back to normal.

No it will not.

Al-Qaeda [and] the Islamic State are simply manifestations of a far deeper cultural problem, that if you whack-a-mole here, it is going to manifest itself in another way, and the reason is because Islamic civilization – if you could still even speak of it in those terms or in the culture, particularly in the Arab world, is in a state of collapse because it is on a collision course with the modern world.

They have no means with which to enter the modern world in the majority conception of Sunni Islam. It is not available to them. It does not mean that the normal person does not go about life, daily life, in a way that we can recognize. And as you know, I have many Muslim friends of whom I have worked with, but the profundity of the fundamental theological problem means that it is not going to be solved with a social program, an economic program, a psychological program. It needs to be solved at the theological level.

Abdolkarim Soroush was an Iranian Revolutionary supporter of the regime in ‘79. He became disillusioned. He now lives in Canada or Germany. He is a great thinker and writer. I just want to finish my answer to you in this way. When he is talking about the possibility of having a decent, rule of law, constitutional life in the Muslim world. Quote, “Without a different theology, can one have democracy? You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning, in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic god anymore. A despotic god would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights, so you have to change your idea of God,” unquote.

Now, a Syrian Muslim intellectual reformer told me – he said I felt I went in a theological prison, and Arabic was part of that prison, and until I learned French, I could not escape from the prison and do exactly what General Al-Sisi said. You see the problem from the outside. Now, this, TheClosing of the Muslim Mind, by the way, its Arabic translation is ready to go, so I need to upgrade my home security system.

But the point is at the Westminster Institute we published a book called Reforming Islam, all written by Muslim intellectual reformers. And the value of this wonderful book is when people get angry at what I have said about Islam, and say oh, Reilly, he must be an Islamophobe, I would say, oh, look at chapter four in Reforming Islam. Is Mohammed Al-Kun an Islamophobe? No, he is a Muslim, how could he be? Well, what about that? Well, look at chapter 14. Muslim intellectuals recognized by saying the very same thing.

Audience member:

I am an author and a foreign policy analyst. I agree with you about the nature of Islamist extremism before reading your book and learning a lot more. My question is sort of a what-if question. In 2008, Islamist extremism was on the rise, but movements for freedom throughout the Middle East and the Arab world were very much on the rise, also. Surveys at the time showed that such a large percentage of Arab people were tired of the stagnation that comes from socialist governments and from the repression and looking for an alternative.

So, my question is what if in 2008 at that sort of turning point, rather than nurture the one, we had nurtured the other. What if we had reached out to the pro-democracy movements, for example, in Egypt, rather than base our policy on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, and created a more balanced policy, or when the Iranians took to the streets and put up signs saying, ‘Obama, are you with us,’ we had not responded with silence, or when one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen, the Syrian regime, we had not gone along with Russian and Iranian clients for the Syrians, which made the situation so much worse, but had actually showed some compassion, and on and on, and had not abetted all the Russian and Iranian plans, and had not even abetted the Shiite regime in Iraq and the way they work with Iran toward a much more repressive approach to the Sunnis. So, it is kind of a what-if question.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, it is an excellent question. It is more than one question. No, no because the situations are fundamentally different. In Iran, I thought it was an enormous, missed opportunity on the part of Obama to do what he did or more accurately to do what he did not. The problem in Iran is not the Iranian people, it is the Iranian regime, but he made his calculation that if he said nothing about those enormous street demonstrations, that the Ayatollahs would give him a good nuclear deal. [It was a] very bad miscalculation. And if anyone is ready for a constitutional, democratic regime, it is the Iranians because Shia Islam is fundamentally different in its attitude both toward reason and philosophy than in Sunni Islam, so as one Iranian said to me, hey, you invaded the wrong country. You should have freed us. We are ready for this.

The answer on the Arab Middle East is different. I know about the surveys, that they are all for democracy and freedom, but when you scratch the surface and you go underneath there to see what does that mean, you ask them a question such as do you believe – for instance, the fundamental principle of democratic, constitutional rule, do you believe that all people are created equal? Of course not. Do you believe that men and women are created equal? No. Do you believe Muslims and non-Muslims, not to say Jews, are created equal? No.

In Egypt, do you believe people should be executed for apostasy? 84 percent of the population [says] yes. Yes, they would like to be free. They would like to see their side in the ascendant, but when you see what does freedom mean, it does not mean what we think it means. And the fact that there was no side in Tahrir Square with whom to side on the democratic [question]. They had no organization. They had no institutions. There was no part of civic society that could have possibly carried that, and the young Twitter guys it turned out had Muslim Brotherhood ties.

So, it is not quite what it appears to be. Now, Tunisia is a different story because it was a secular state and it had an educational curriculum for many, many decades that laid the foundation for something like this. And one hopes that they can continue on their path without succumbing to Islamism, but [as for] the rest of the Arab Middle East, the place is falling apart. The post-Ottoman order imposed by the imperial powers is unglued. I mean nations like Egypt, which have their identity going back millennia, they will hold on. Iran and other ancient civilizations will hold on. Turkey, at least parts of it, will hold on. The rest of it is absolutely up for grabs. And we can stand back, and it is going to be very violent for a very long time. Because of the denigration of reason in their culture, there is no way to adjudicate disagreements except by violence and force, and that is the way they are going to settle it. And it is going to be a vicious fight, and the problem with this vicious fight is that the outside powers are taking proxy forces to preserve their interests in there as we know.

Audience member:

You talked about a lot of aspects of the ideas or propaganda back and forth, some military operations and so on. What about some of the really tangible things we are doing? I mean basically what we are doing now is injecting a lot of money into the area. We are showing them our latest weapons. How is that going to play out?

Robert R. Reilly:

It is not playing out very well. There is no evidence that we have any idea what we are doing there. I do not see any coherent policy, and until we have one, I would not be in favor of putting American boots on the ground there.

Audience member:

Could you clarify something for me to cite so I understand the spiritual conflict in Islam? You have got Alawite Assad, who is pals with Shiite Iran, yet you had Sunni Saddam who was a Ba’athist person, which I understand Assad is also Ba’athist. So, we have got two Ba’athist [politicians] from what I understand, politically fascist, secular governments. I understand the UAR was once Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. I think Nasser at one time was a Ba’athist. Okay, just a conjecture. Reconcile that for me. I mean the reason Assad is still in power has to do with this because of fascist, authoritarian control of the country. My speculative question is, is that maybe an alternative to having a reconstituted Ottoman Empire or a Persian Empire, to have a secular government in the Middle East, the Arab Middle East, a kind of super UAR? Will that work?

Robert R. Reilly:

No, it has already been tried and failed. Ba’athism was just an emanation of Arab secular nationalism, but with a dose of socialism and neo-Marxism pumped in there.

Audience member:

Well, they did not have peace and love but they had order.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, but it also failed, and it is exactly the failure of Arab nationalism and Arab national socialism that has led to the resurgence in Islamism because they said you tried this damn ideology from the West, this national socialism, and that did not work. Some of you [tried] neo-Marxism, and that did not work. The West does not work. We need to return to our roots in Islam, and that is the Islamist perspective, and that is what they are trying to do.


I want to thank Bob. Thank you very much. There are only six people who can give that lecture, and he is most of them.